Upon arrival: Migrants in Massachusetts

We've spent the last few months speaking with new arrivals and the advocates and organizations who work with them about why they decided to leave home, how they wound up in Massachusetts, their hopes and dreams for their future in the U.S., and how they are faring working with an overtaxed system

In August 2023, Massachusetts Gov. Maura Healey declared a state of emergency as a historic influx of migrants sought out help from the Commonwealth's strained shelter system. Massachusetts is the only state in the country with a "right-to-shelter" law, which guarantees homeless families access to emergency shelter.

In June, Healey sent state officials down to the southern border to emphasize that Massachusetts shelters are full and can’t continue to take in migrant families who cross into the U.S.

With the shelter system at capacity, there have been many conversations on Beacon Hill about the budgets and policies the government needs to respond to a crisis situation. But advocates we spoke with say it's important to understand that when we talk about immigration it's about much more than providing a place to stay, and much bigger than the state's shelter system.

We've spent the last few months speaking with new arrivals and the advocates and organizations who work with them about why they decided to leave home, how they wound up in Massachusetts, their hopes and dreams for their future in the U.S., and how they are faring working with an overtaxed system.

While their stories varied, they had many themes in common. They left their home countries because they could not find work, could not build stable lives, or feared for the safety of their families. Many tried living in other countries before they ultimately decided to try settling in the United States. They described physically difficult, traumatic journeys and long waits for the appropriate paperwork. Those who made it to Massachusetts described difficulty finding housing or shelter, some sleeping at the airport or shelters where they were required to leave for the entire day, with nowhere else to go. They are often hampered by language barriers

But they also described finding support in each other, in the state, in the school systems, and in the community organizations working on the ground to help immigrants successfully launch a life here.

IFSI offers migrant families support to establish lives in Mass.

Many migrant families arriving in Massachusetts are relying on the state’s emergency shelter system, but with that system full to the brink, nonprofits are essential to the work of helping families settle in the U.S. Follow NBC10 Boston on... Instagram: instagram.com/nbc10boston TikTok: tiktok.com/@nbc10boston Facebook: facebook.com/NBC10Boston X: twitter.com/NBC10Boston

What it's like to be a migrant student at Foxborough Public Schools

Since last September, Foxborough has welcomed 93 families for temporary accommodation in one of its hotels. Among these families, there are mostly Chileans and Haitians, a very unusual population in this town. We spoke to some of the younger members of these families about how they're settling into their new life. Follow NBC10 Boston on... Instagram: instagram.com/nbc10boston TikTok: tiktok.com/@nbc10boston Facebook: facebook.com/NBC10Boston X: twitter.com/NBC10Boston

Trailer

In August 2023, Mass. Gov. Maura Healey declared a state of emergency as a historic influx of migrants sought up help from the Commonwealth's strained shelter system. We've spent months speaking with new arrivals and the organizations who work with them about why they decided to leave home, their hopes and dreams for their future, and how they are faring so far.  Follow NBC10 Boston on... Instagram: instagram.com/nbc10boston TikTok: tiktok.com/@nbc10boston Facebook: facebook.com/NBC10Boston X: twitter.com/NBC10Boston

Education

In the United States, every child has the right to receive a free public education from kindergarten through 12th grade, regardless of race, national origin, language, sex, or immigration status. And a fundamental part of the protocol for welcoming immigrants in Massachusetts has been the accommodation of children in the public school district in the community where they were placed.

Last September, Foxborough was one of many municipalities to welcome migrant families. There are 93 families who live in one of its hotels.

Of those families, Foxborough Public Schools is serving 26 students at the elementary level, 14 in middle school and eight in high school.

“We were able to handle it because we have wonderful people. We have wonderful teachers and staff that are here and the community at large,” says Amy Berdos, superintendent of Foxborough Public Schools.

But district officials note it wasn't without it challenges. Among them are state regulations regarding registering new students, which includes things like screenings for things like language requirements, and require that new students be appropriately placed in a certain amount of time.

“The saying that it takes a village, I think it took three," Cory Mikolazyk, director of student services, explained "We talk about the critical part that our classroom teachers play on an every day basis, the critical part that our ELL teachers provide, our principals our school secretaries who also participate in the registration office, our secretaries from the student services office and really it was an all hands on deck kind of approach and I think that if it wasn’t for everyone that was involved then it wouldn’t been as successful as  it is now.”

He pointed out that the district needed to double its staff of ELL - English language learner - teachers to accommodate the new students. It's a situation that could play out in other towns that previously didn't have high numbers of students in need of those resources.

Housing

Having a safe place to stay is one of the most basic needs for those newly arrived in the state. The United Way of Massachusetts Bay has been integral in coordinating between community organizations and the state to mobilize and expand the capacity of the shelter system during this crisis.

"This past fall, United Way partnered with the Commonwealth, to launch the Safety Net program, which has partnered with 32 organizations to launch 11 sites across the Commonwealth. These sites are together serving more than 200 families a day, providing emergency housing, as well as the connections people need to put down roots in their communities," explained Sarah Bartley, vice president of housing stability for United Way.

The state's emergency shelter system has been at capacity with about 7,500 families, with several hundred on the wait list. It's important to note that the system services not just migrant families, but any family experiencing homelessness in Massachusetts. But migrant families may have unique challenges to overcome such as language and cultural barriers.

"We know waves of migration are nothing new. We're especially proud that across the sites that we've supported are many that are led by immigrants themselves, and that the Safety Net program has given them the opportunity to, build the capacity of the things that they're already doing and bring them to scale," Bartley said.

The Brockton-based Haitian Community Partners Foundation is among those organizations. Founded in 2013, the organization offers a range of services, from English classes to financial literacy programs to youth workforce development to mental health support and more in between. They call the aid they offer “standing in the gap.”  

Providing stable housing is one of their initiatives, not only in motels, where they're working with hundreds of families, but also by creating strong partnerships in the community to set families up in more permanent apartment living.

"We dismissed the notion that, you are unable to get the private landlord market involved with our homeless populations. Yes, it is true. That if someone presents with the homeless status, there are challenges to finding housing. But we've figured out something. It's not just the housing piece. It's really the wraparound services that are associated with housing integration," explained Rev. Tony Branch with HCP.

Jobs

According to the Migration Policy Institute, in 2022 18% of the Massachusetts population was foreign-born. That statistic includes naturalized U.S. citizens, lawful permanent immigrants (often referred to as green card holders), refugees and asylees, certain legal nonimmigrants (such as students or others on temporary visas), and people who reside in the country without proper authorization. According to a study by the American Immigration Council, they make up 1/5 of the state's labor force.

"I don't think there's a single industry that can stand without immigrants. We most frequently see immigrants in the hospitality industry. So hotels, restaurants, many are going to gig economy jobs such as rideshares and other. But really, a lot of these immigrants are coming with incredibly rich backgrounds that aren't just limited to entry-level and low level wage jobs. Many are teachers, mechanics, educators, you know, and and there's a bounty of of knowledge coming," explains Stephanie Rosario Rodriguez with the MIRA Coalition.

With a range of visa classifications and different legal statuses to consider, even those who arrive with strong support systems and financial means may struggle to navigate the complex immigration system. Many families we spoke with said they've struggled to obtain work permits and those who completed the application process often say they've endured indiscriminate wait times before being granted the authorization they need to even begin applying to jobs.

"Work authorization used to take a year, a year and a half. This is really unacceptable," explained Dieufort Fleurissant, chief advocacy officer for the Immigrant Family Services Institute (IFSI). "And the best way to help those migrants make the transition is to expedite the processing of the authorization. We have seen, the results, positive results of it. Now, those migrants who come in here are receiving the work authorizations within a month or two. That's a big positive result."

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